A Scene of “Horrible Barbarity”

In the spirit of the Halloween season, I present a curiously morbid story entitled “Horrible Barbarity” that circulated through a few newspapers in the spring of 1864. The article, published first by the Houston Daily Telegraph around April 30, 1864, was replicated in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial (May 4, 1864), The Liberator of Boston (May 9, 1864), the Perrysburg Journal (May 25, 1864), and the Burlington Daily Hawk Eye Gazette (May 14, 1864). It details a vivid scene of bored Confederate soldiers around the site of Gaines Mill, Virginia.

Among the multifarious incidents of this unholy war, not the least in interest and peculiar attraction, is the following, which I have taken down from the mouth of a writer and actor in the scene – a man of truth and energy, and who bears upon his body the marks of the enemy.

Along the banks of the Chickahominy may be seen the usual diversity of our glorious land. Here abrupt and towering acclivities; there, smooth and flowing table (or perhaps more properly speaking, prairie) land meets the eye and even at this time of quick death and ruin, presents a picture of loveliness and beauty, at once pleasing, attractive, and almost entrancing. Such is dear old Virginia-dear to me, first because from her soil and clime came my revered progenitor (if he did, as he used to tell his pridefull[sic] grandchildren, black shoes for a living), and secondly, because the grand old chivalric land has as much, if not more of natural beauty than any other portion of the Confederacy.

Very well; but now to the incident foreshadowed. On a certain occasion my friend’s company was ordered out, with other forces, to check an anticipated raid of the enemy. They went of course, and it so happened that they were then in the vicinity of Gaines’ Mill, where thousands of the enemies of our country had left their imbecile bodies in the implacate[sic] arms of death. Unlike ourselves, the living had simply buried their dead on the top of the ground, or so shallowly that arm and leg bones and skulls were plenty, and rather in the way. Our boys had seen nothing of the enemy. The scouts reported that nothing could be seen or heard of them. The boys were not weary, but thirsting, so to speak, for something to do, and one proposed they should have a game of ten-pins. The proposition seemed ill-timed and unreasonable; so another asked, “how can this be done here, where the bones and skulls of our enemies are lying around us?”   “Easy enough,” replied the eccentric and original, “the thigh and leg bones scattered around will answer for pins, and the skulls will suit for balls.”

The strangeness of the proposition together, with an inexpressible interest all felt in it, won the day, and soon the pins were set up, and the skulls filled with sand to give them specific gravity care being taken to select the round skulls (a rather difficult thing to find among Yankees) and thus our revelers bowled away for several hours. Just think of it! The invaders of our country having fallen in battle – their bones left by their own friends to cumber the surface of the earth and our glorious boys meeting with these harmless relics, made them still subserve for the enjoyment of an idle hour. To tell the truth, I should like to have been there to participate. I think at every bowl I should have shouted one more cry for Liberty! And have rolled the balls with a vehemence unusual. The pastime was something so unusual, so p’quant, so rich, recherche – like Byron’s drinking wine from a skull – that to me, doating upon graveyards and delighting in wrecks as I do, the narrative gave exquisite pleasure. This is one of the pleasant features of the Death Dance now going on. Who will get tired first?

Tom Anchorite

Dead on the Gaines Mill Battlefield

At first read, it’s clear that the author of the tale is a Southerner. A cursory search for a man by the last name of “Anchorite” comes up fairly empty, suggesting that this may have been a penname. The definition of “anchorite” is “a religious recluse” like a nun or monk, though this doesn’t give much of a hint to the identity of the writer. But a “Tom Anchorite” did write to the Southern Confederacy newspaper out of Atlanta, Georgia (February 3, 1864) and he is mentioned in The Times-Picayune out of New Orleans (August 14, 1864), both articles in relation to Texas, but disclose little about the man behind this story. One clue is that he might be a Texan, since this article originated from Texas and his other connections with Texan-related articles, or Virginian, based on the first paragraph regarding the author’s clear fondness for the state’s landscape and mention of a relative from there. However, there exists a peculiarity in the narrative. By 1864, the land was neither “glorious” nor a “picture of loveliness and beauty, at once pleasing, attractive, and almost entrancing.” Virginia had endured three years of war and had been wasted by the armies in many places. Many accounts from soldiers give testimonies of the barren and trodden fields.

Secondly, the soldiers’ blatant disregard for the remains of the dead seemed to contradict the taboos of the era. Though some taboos are not hard-set rules of social conduct, as there are individuals who are not squeamish about such things, it is an aspect to consider when reading extreme stories of this kind. However, if these are Confederates and the skulls and bones belonged to Federals, the disrespect makes sense – though not excusable. Gaines Mill in July of 1862 was part of a string of Confederate victories during the Seven Days Battle as Robert E. Lee chased George B. McClellan away from Richmond. The hasty nature of the retreat explains the shallow graves, a common occurrence during the war when armies did not have proper time to inter their dead comrades. A more well-known example of this comes from soldiers who passed through the Wilderness in 1864 and saw the traces of those who had died in the vicinity just a year prior at the battle of Chancellorsville.

Regardless, the provocative nature of the article is intriguing. If this is a true account of soldiers finding “enjoyment of an idle hour” it certainly conjures a morbid image and was likely circulated through papers in the North to incite outrage at the disrespect shown to the remains of, potentially, friends or family who fell in battle at Gaines Mill in 1862. The language and clear Confederate-centric sentiment of the author compels one to believe it was written by a Southerner and that corroborates with the theory. However – if you’ll permit me to logic this out – it’s difficult to imagine leg bones staying upright long enough to be used in a game of ten-pins without lodging them in the ground to keep them stable. Likewise, a skull has many apertures and cracks, and pouring sand into the cranium to give it “specific gravity” seems like a flawed solution, as the sand would easily leak out after a few good rolls.

Simply said, there are some aspects of this story that makes me call into question its validity, and that it might have been an incendiary piece to elicit strong emotional responses from both sides to support their respective causes. Whatever the truth behind the story may be, it no doubt served it purpose.

5 Responses to A Scene of “Horrible Barbarity”

  1. Fascinating. I assumed when reading that they stuck the bones in the soil, and I think you could roll a skull once and simply refill it as needed. The round issue seems to indicate they wanted skulls that could roll smoothly so the opening for the sand would remain to one side (and thus spill less). The soldiers were jaded by this time, death was all around them.

    My friends and acquaintances in both Vietnam and WWII often did macabre things with the dead.

    I think the story has verisimilitude.

    Thx for sharing.

    1. You just wanted to find an excuse to use “verisimilitude” in a sentence. Theodore Dreiser would be proud! 😉

    2. The idea that the soldiers would be desensitized to death and ruin does make sense, and when held in that light, the story has a sense of validity. I haven’t gotten far in my undergrad studies of the 20th century wars to do a fair comparison yet, but I know there are many aspects of soldiering that are pretty universal. This sounds like one!

  2. thanks Sheritta … this an interesting tale and quite a find … like you, however, i don’t buy it … soldiers — a company’s worth — are on a reconaissance in force … after finding no sign of the enemy they decide to start digging up bones and skulls to play ten pins because they’re bored — sounds fishy … and i note the author didn’t actually witness the event … has all the makings of a tall tale.

    BTW, if you want a fantastic book on death and dying in the CW, recommend Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering.

  3. War is full of occurrences that are stranger than fiction. While I doubt they played for “several hours”, as the columnist claims, I could see the soldiers at least making an attempt at the game. Who knows though? I wonder how many southerners read the article with the same pride as its writer versus those who read it in disgust or shocked disbelief. If I had to guess, I’d say most read it with a feeling of displeasure.

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